Separating the Art from the Artist

With the recent documentaries on R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, the perennial debate has resurfaced: when an artist does reprehensible things, what is the appropriate reaction to his art? Do we boycott, or can we indulge with a clear conscience?

This dilemma is not new. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby. Many of the greats have turned out to have feet of clay or worse. So where does that leave their art?

I have struggled with this, as have many people. In the end, when it comes to movies and TV and music, I have decided it is okay to enjoy the art despite the artist. These ventures are the product of multiple people’s efforts, and it seems unfair to punish all the others involved because of the actions of one.

Writers who have been called out for racism or misogyny are more problematic for me. A book is usually the work of a single person, and their worldview and biases almost always creep into their books. Names that come immediately to mind are H.P. Lovecraft, Orson Scott Card, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, all of whom have been subjects of controversy in the past few years. Lovecraft’s bust was removed as the statuette for the World Fantasy awards in 2015, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name was removed from the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in 2018, and Orson Scott Card’s politics are acknowledged to be racist and homophobic. But where does that leave their works?

People are not black and white. We all are a mix of the ugly and the angel. Our society needs to stop with the either-or and realize it is “and”. These people did or said horrible things, AND they created art that moved us, touched us, became woven into the fabric of our lives. They were both beauty and beast.

Instead of jettisoning the beauty, we need to begin the difficult and painful task of contextualizing our celebrity heroes. Is it possible to condemn the actions, condemn the artist, while embracing the art? I believe it is. There is even a possibility that their lasting works of art grew out of the very damage that also caused them to behave in the ways they have—two sides of a coin.

Disgusting people can create beautiful art.

Brilliant artists can be awful human beings.

Evil people can do good things.

Their art can still teach us, touch us, and illuminate something deep about the human condition.

Art transcends time, space, and the artist themselves.

In the end, every consumer of art needs to draw their own line in the sand. That line will be different for each person. Predatory or bigoted behavior should absolutely be called out no matter who does it. But removing the good with the evil leaves the world a darker, bleaker place.

So my take is not to boycott the art, but to contextualize it, to teach the people coming to it for the first time where it came from. The artist’s actions will inevitably color the relationship of people to the art, as it should. This experience of placing the art in relation to the artist causes the viewer’s mind to wrestle with the deep complexity of human nature—which is exactly what art is supposed to do.

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